September 30, 2012
A tale of two Israels
Filmmaker Peter Kosminsky discusses his TV mini-series, "The Promise," which looks at the Arab-Israeli conflict through the eyes of a Mandate-era British soldier and his granddaughter decades later. Released in the U.K. last year, the series is now available on Hulu.
I suppose the obvious first question is, why this topic?
Some years ago, I made a film for the BBC - which was released in the United States under the title Peacekeepers - about British soldiers trying to keep the peace in Bosnia in 1992-3. After that film was broadcast in the United Kingdom, I received a letter from an old British soldier. Most of the letter detailed his responses to our programme but at the end there was a paragraph which referred to his own military experience as a British peacekeeping soldier in Palestine in the three years following the Second World War. He described how that deployment, which was not a success, was never subsequently referred to. He and his fellow veterans were not allowed to march as a unit on Remembrance Day. They had no memorial. They felt as if there was an attempt to erase their mission from history.
In his letter, that veteran effectively dared to me to tell that story. It took me over 10 years, but in the end I managed to do it. In making the film, we interviewed more than 80 of the surviving veterans of that three-year deployment in what was then British-controlled Palestine. Our research team spent many months in the British National Archives and in the Imperial War Museum, researching the period 1945-1948 in Palestine. Although the resulting film is fictional, we did our very best to faithfully reflect the impressions we picked up both from our own primary research and from the written materials we had spent so long assembling. What came through terribly strongly, in all the research, was the intense goodwill felt by the British soldiers towards Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression in Eastern Europe at the end of the war. Having either witnessed the concentration camps directly, or spoken to those that had, these British soldiers were absolutely committed when they arrived to the concept of a place of safety for the Jewish people. But by the end of those three short years, that attitude had almost completely changed. Part of the purpose of the film was to try to understand why.
You've tackled some of the most contentious issues in modern British history, such as the Falklands, Bosnia and the 7/7 bombings. How did the responses to this series differ from the responses to others, given that for many people, this is very close to their hearts?
It's true that I have worked on some fairly contentious subjects over the years. And those films, when they were transmitted, did come in for often quite vociferous criticism. What was different in this case was that the criticism has been so personal. The film has not been particularly well received by Zionists and, because I am Jewish myself, some of the criticism has been quite hurtful. As others have observed before me, it is difficult to do or say anything which can be construed as being critical of the state of Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. I find this equation quite troubling.
My own family having suffered very directly from the consequences of anti-Semitism, I believe it is an accusation that should be used with care. To criticise the foreign and domestic policies of a sovereign state, in this case Israel, is completely different from being a racist. Like the boy who cried wolf, if we constantly level the accusation of racism when it isn't warranted, we run the risk of it being ignored when it genuinely is. My fear is that people have rather lazily come to level this accusation whenever Israel is criticised to avoid addressing those political criticisms directly. The truth is that there are many Jews in the Diaspora who are not Zionists and Zionism and Judaism are not synonymous.
The series depicts a life of luxury in Israel - the beachfront home in Casearea, the Mercedes convertible, shopping in designer stores in Tel Aviv - that most Israelis don't experience. Are you concerned that this is not representative of modern Israel, and gives a false impression of the country?
If an Israeli filmmaker, or an American for that matter, came to my country to make a fictional drama about a family here, I doubt if anyone would complain if the family depicted weren't at the exact economic and political mean of British society. I didn't set out to make a documentary or to make my characters representative, in the sense of some kind of survey - pitched so they exactly represented the average Israeli. I was trying to make a powerful and compelling drama, with something to say about the modern world.
Erin is a British schoolgirl in an unusual position. She attends an expensive private school although she is not herself wealthy. Her education is provided free because her mother teaches at the school. Erin is fascinated by Eliza, who is at the centre of the circle of popular kids in her year. Erin has tried very hard to impress her, to be her friend. Having now left school, she faces a long and rather dreary gap year, doing work experience and helping her mother with the elderly Len. Unexpectedly, for reasons that are explained in the film, Eliza invites Erin to come out to Israel for an extended holiday. It is Eliza's description of the lifestyle that would be on offer - the sun, the sea, the swimming pool and, yes, the implication of conspicuous consumption to come - that makes the offer so tempting. Tempting enough in fact, for Erin to defy her mother and fly out to Israel against her wishes. If Eliza and her family weren't wealthy, Erin would in all likelihood not have gone.
I don't think anyone is denying that families like the Meyers exist in Israel. We shot the sequences in a real town, (Caesarea), and in a real house in that town. What has concerned some of the film's critics is that the Meyers are not a typical Israeli family. But I wasn't seeking to make them typical. I was seeking to create a plausible family that worked within the dramatic framework I had conceived for Erin. This should surprise no one. It is the normal stuff of drama.
The Israeli perspectives shown in the series seem to range from liberal to far-left. Given that there is such a wide range of political opinion among Israelis, are there other voices to come, perhaps a right-winger or religious Zionist?
Of course right wingers, (Immanuel Katz), and religious Zionists, (the settlers in Hebron, amongst others), are depicted in the film. Eliza herself ends up in a fairly right of centre political position by episode four and her mother, (Leah), is certainly no left winger throughout the story. But for me, the debate between left and right in Israel is a fairly familiar one. I was more interested in mounting a debate between two shades of opinion within one of those perspectives. Having witnessed this within my own immediate family, I was interested to see how actually quite narrow political differences of opinion could be used to fashion the battle ground between a father, (Max), and son, (Paul), who are in fact arguing about other, more personal matters - matters to do with power and authority within the family unit, to do with Paul's lack of self-esteem following his imprisonment, to do with growing up and breaking free from parental intellectual dominance. Erin encounters Israelis of all political persuasions on her journey, both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians Israelis. But, within her host family, I was keen to explore this less predictable and less familiar dynamic.
Do you think that the British government should take more of a lead role in peace efforts, given that the country was instrumental in the creating the current situation?
PK: Actually, I think the British government should stay out of it, as should all external forces. The history of foreign intervention in the region is not a glorious one. America's rôle in the region in particular, though no doubt initially well meant, has been so partisan as to act as a impassable block to reconciliation and resolution for many years. However, I do think it is important that my country, the United Kingdom, should acknowledge its central role in the creation of the present catastrophe. Most people over here have absolutely no idea that we were in any way involved in precipitating what is now called the Middle-East conflict. Highlighting this fact, uncomfortable though it may be, is one of the main reasons why I wanted to make 'The Promise'.
You've clearly invested a great deal of time in researching the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. How would you solve it?
PK: I'm not a politician, nor am I a citizen of Israel/Palestine. So I'm not really qualified to answer this question. What I did research very thoroughly was the foreigner's perspective, the perspective of an outsider arriving in that part of the world for very specific reasons. However, I did spend almost a year living and travelling in the region. It is hard to see how a Palestinian state can now be fashioned from the patchwork of no-go territories settlers have created in what the wider international community sees as Palestinian lands. Difficult as it may be to imagine this in the present circumstances, the only solution that now makes any sense to me is a one state solution - Jews and Palestinians agreeing to share the land of Israel/Palestine and live together democratically, in cooperation and peace. Of course, this is what happens in most other countries in the world. It's strange, and indicative of how deep the bitterness runs, that no one even considers this fairly normal scenario as a viable solution for the region.
The series has come under a fire from Jewish groups in the countries in which it has been shown (Britain, Australia and France). Author Howard Jacobson even called it a "ludicrous piece of brainwashed prejudice". How would you answer charges that the Jewish characters are deliberately portrayed as unsympathetic, while Arab characters are wholly seen as innocent victims?
This is a very difficult accusation to answer because it so obviously flies in the face of the reality of the show itself. In some cases it is an accusation levelled by people who admit to not having watched the entire series, responding merely to criticisms that they have read about or heard from others. I don't see how anyone who has actually watched the programme through to the end can say that there are no sympathetic Jewish characters in The Promise. Paul is arguably the most sympathetic character in the entire film, and is effectively given the last word. I think critics of the programme don't count him because they don't agree with him politically. But he is undeniably Jewish and undeniably a sympathetic character. His mother and father are both sympathetic characters. One might not agree with them all the time or think they behave correctly all the time but they are clearly rounded and sympathetic characters. They are movingly depicted as being distraught when their son is caught in a suicide bombing. They display very genuine protectiveness and concern towards Erin, a stranger in their home.
Eliza is depicted sympathetically; she is a complex character who undergoes changes throughout the story. She is shown reacting sympathetically and emotionally when her brother is injured. And Immanuel Katz has a compelling and persuasive argument. Of course he has a bombastic manner but the point he is making is emotional and real, based as it is on the devastation of almost his entire family.
In the 1940s story, Clara Rosenbaum is depicted as a complex character, facing a very real dilemma. She is a committed member of the Irgun, operating under cover as a number of members of that organisation did. Against the odds, she falls in love with her target, Sgt Len Matthews. Despite her very strongly held political convictions, she lies to protect him, and eventually bargains for his life, putting her own at risk. Her friend Ziphora, also Jewish, is depicted sympathetically. None of these characters can possibly be described as two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out villains. And amongst the Palestinian characters, there are negative depictions. We see very directly, through Erin's eyes, the effect of a Palestinian suicide bombing on civilians, with emotional scenes within the Meyer family and extremely graphic scenes in an Israeli hospital. And in Gaza, we see the arguments - leading almost to a gunfight - between what might be termed moderate and radical Palestinians. It is actually impossible to understand how any reasonable viewer could claim that the Jewish characters in The Promise are all unsympathetic and the Palestinian characters are all saints. I can only conclude that this argument is being deployed by people who do not wish the film well and are trying to discredit it.
How close to actual historical events to you believe “The Promise” to be?
The Promise is fiction. It makes no claim beyond that, though of course it was researched very thoroughly by a large team over a period of several years. In this respect, it resembles many other works of fiction which attempt to bed themselves in the real world. We thoroughly research the context, then create a fictional set of characters and plunge them into a world that is as realistic as we can manage. The events in the 1940s story are particularly thoroughly researched. However, in the end, it is a work of fiction and must be judged by its audience as such.